The week of April 17, 2016

How the earliest victims of climate change are protecting each other

By Christine Ro

When it comes to preparing for the risks of disasters exacerbated by climate change, leadership can come from some unlikely places. Take Boonpeng Inkaew, a Thai retiree in his 70s. According to HelpAge International, Inkaew didn’t let retirement slow him down. He went from being head man of his village, in Thailand’s Pong Nam Ron area, to heading the subdistrict’s older people’s association.

Inkaew’s area is prone to small floods, but the flood that hit in September 2011 was more intense than any other in local memory. Two people died, and the damage was severe. This galvanized Inkaew into action. He mobilized the community, particularly the older people he worked with, into protecting its homes and members against future disasters. In his own village, which lies against a large mud slope, he was especially concerned about landslides.

To reduce risk, community members built small dams intended to both limit water flow and provided water during droughts. They planted trees on the riverbank to reduce the height of floods. And they trained an intergenerational network to watch out for early signs of flooding, so that the community could be warned and especially vulnerable people evacuated.

For people like Inkaew, the threat of the next disaster is ever-present. As he says, “The work didn’t end once life went back to normal. Even now, when the older people come to collect their pensions, I remind them that they must remain prepared for future disasters and that they should never ignore the warning signs.”

Boonpeng Inkaew, President of the Pong Nam Ron Sub-District Older People’s Association, takes his job very seriously. Case Study: Devoted to service Much loved by the area’s older people, 72-year-old Boonpeng has occupied the position of President of the Pong Nam Ron sub-district older people’s group for the past 12 years. He believes he was voted into this role because the community saw him as especially devoted during his time as a village Head Man previously. Indeed, he insists that he never misses any activities and that he always takes an active interest in the lives of his members. “My most important responsibility as President is to ensure that the education of the older members of our community never ceases”, Boonpeng says, adding that he enjoys finding innovative means of achieving this, such as through traditional dancing. When the 2011 disaster happened, he explains how he convened a meeting to decide how best to meet the needs of the older people who’d been affected. “We had a lot of success in encouraging people to donate whatever food they could spare in order to help”, he recalls. “The work didn’t end once life went back to normal”, Boonpeng adds. “Even now, when the older people come to collect their pensions, I remind them that they must remain prepared for future disasters and that they should never ignore the warning signs”. He also reminds people that though memories of flash flooding may be most vivid, there are also other risks that should not be forgotten. Personally, in his own village, he is more concerned about the possibility of landslides as it lies close to a large mud slope. The village’s disaster plan was framed around this particular threat. Boonpeng is clear that ol
Boonpeng Inkaew, president of the Pong Nam Ron Sub-District Older People’s Association. Photo by Robin Wyatt/ HelpAge International.

One of the ironies of climate change is that it’s making wet areas wetter even as it’s making dry areas drier. Another irony is that these effects are being felt more strongly in countries that have contributed least to them, particularly in Asia. And, if you have the appetite for one more irony: The areas that may see a slight benefit from climate change are mainly colder ones. These areas also tend to be the wealthiest. Thus people like Inkaew stand to suffer the bulk of the damage from climate change.

Overall, climate change will increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather, from heat waves (the harm from which will be greater than the benefits from fewer cold spells) to droughts and floods. Geological activity will even intensify earthquakes and volcano eruptions.

These aren’t just abstract or far-off changes. Dr. Diane Archer, an expert on urban climate change, notes, “There are some very obvious examples of a changing climate,” from the extreme heat wave in India last summer to the last year’s alarmingly punishing typhoon season in the Philippines. “And while you can say that the Philippines has always had a tendency to be hit by typhoons, they’re getting more severe,” Archer says.

Boonpeng Inkaew, President of the Pong Nam Ron Sub-District Older People’s Association, coordinates closely with the Foundation for Older Persons' Development (FOPDEV) on developing the capacity of the area's associations. Image by Robin Wyatt/ HelpAge International.

Children make up the majority of people affected by disasters worldwide; many women, too, are at risk. Compared to men, women and children are 14 times more likely to die in a disaster. A vivid example comes from Sri Lanka, where men and boys had better chances of surviving the 2004 tsunami because they are taught to swim and climb trees.

Elderly people are also particularly vulnerable. Three-quarters of the deaths caused by Hurricane Katrina were of people aged 60 and older. Older people may have mobility and health considerations that are worsened by climate change. They’re also less able to physically adapt to difficult circumstances. Yet as Inkaew and the work of HelpAge International show, older people can also be a powerful force for organizing to reduce disaster risk, bringing wisdom, experience, and community standing.

Like the elderly, people with disabilities often face physical, and sometimes cognitive, risks. They’re also likely to be disregarded in efforts to reduce disaster risk. Dung Mai sees this all the time. In central Vietnam, Mai lives in a house raised off the ground to avoid persistent flooding and works in disability-inclusive disaster risk management. Government officials, community members, relatives, and sometimes even disabled people themselves “just consider a person with disability someone who can’t help in disasters.” Frequently, planning around disaster risk will exclude those with disabilities, which means that their specific needs may not be considered.

“Back then, I still regarded other disabled people with apathy, believing that only I was able to accomplish meaningful work.”

Mai works directly with people like Ba Le Trung, who prove the detractors wrong. As he told the humanitarian aid agency Malteser International, Trung used to be something of a playboy in his village of Thi Thai. However, on returning to the village after military service, a youthful dare led to the loss of an arm and a leg. “Back then,” he says, “I still regarded other disabled people with apathy, believing that only I was able to accomplish meaningful work.”

However, Mai worked with Trung and others to incorporate the needs and abilities of disabled people into village disaster planning. As a Rescue Team member, Trung now helps to organize evacuation drills, prioritize disabled people in evacuations to community shelters, and involve disabled people in community-wide processes, such as those mapping out danger spots. “My story is not exceptional,” Trung says, “but I believe that after reading it no one will continue viewing disabled people in the way I used to.”

These groups all have special needs when it comes to preparing for climate-influenced disasters. Globally, they’re also at particular risk of poverty. That’s not coincidental.

Limited ability to prepare for the worst derives not just from geography, but also from economics: Sadly but unsurprisingly, it’s the poor who are most at risk when disaster strikes. This is true at a global level, as the majority of people killed during disasters live in low- and middle-income countries. It’s also true within countries—consider the images that flooded airwaves in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

At the family level, Archer explains, “Poor households might be trapped in a vicious circle, where they might build up some assets and then a flood comes along and wipes it all out, and then they have to start all over again. It’s hard to move beyond coping (such as moving items to a raised platform) to actually taking a more adaptive, forward-looking, longer-term measure—which might involve raising the base of your house so that the house doesn’t get flooded, as opposed to just shifting your belongings in the house.”

A village rescue team in Vietnam receives training in inclusive first-aid skills. Photo by Cam Nhung/Malteser International.

It’s easy to ask why at-risk people don’t simply move somewhere safer, but there’s often a huge gap between the people who want to migrate and those who can. Take the Pacific island nations of Kiribati, Nauru, and Tuvalu—each of which is smaller than Rhode Island. Over the past decade most residents of these countries have been affected by climate change, including sea-level rise, drought, and flooding. While the majority see migration as a likely response to climate change, three-fourths can’t afford to leave. The median income is $12 a month, and starting over is costly.

The same poverty that makes people especially vulnerable to disaster limits their options for moving out of harm’s way. Poverty may be the reason people are living in high-risk areas in the first place, whether in coastal settlements prone to typhoon damage or overcrowded slums prone to earthquake damage. This pattern isn’t limited to the Pacific islands; again, consider those who weren’t able to evacuate during Hurricane Katrina, and who couldn’t afford to leave in its aftermath. Around the world, people without sufficient resources may be trapped along sinking, storm-battered coastlines filling with saltwater.

“They’re living there in the first place is because often they don’t have a choice.”

As Archer points out, “The reason they’re living there in the first place is because often they don’t have a choice.” They may be near employment and schools; they’re a part of the community. “So they might have been living in that area for a long time, and rely very much on the social capital that they’ve built with their neighbors to get through any problems like flooding or cash flow problems or anything else like that. And there might not be any alternative places for them to move to. … Moving might just mean moving to another area where they’re equally at risk of flooding or landslides, or equally at risk of eviction.”

Even for those who can afford it, migration often isn’t a good option. It can be difficult to leave behind families, livelihoods, schools, healthcare facilities, and homelands—the social ties that both bind and support. That support can prove essential. A grandmother susceptible to heat waves might be most protected by the friends or grandchildren who can check in on her frequently when the temperature goes up. A community prone to floods might be strongest when its members stick together and shore up barriers together.

Thus, it’s not surprising that people continue to extend their roots in at-risk areas. From 1970 to 2010, for instance, the world’s population increased by 87 percent. But along cyclone-prone coastlines, the growth was much higher, at 192 percent.

In a Vietnamese village, representatives of people with disabilities participate in hazard mapping. Photo by Thu Huyen/Malteser International.

Around the world, people are acting to reduce the impact of environmental disasters. Some measures are very simple. In Bangladesh, many people grow vegetables on their roofs, both to produce food and to keep tin sheet houses cooler. Technology can also help. In Hat Yai, Thailand, where irrigation canals are prone to flash flooding, community members, a funder, and the local government came together to install webcams along the canals. The webcams are monitored by people who live nearby. If someone upstream sees worrying water levels, they can send a text message (using Line, Asia’s answer to WhatsApp) to someone downstream. As well as enabling this very local-level warning system, the webcam footage is constantly streamed online: Even remote viewers can keep an eye on the situation.

In other parts of the world, upstream flood sensors can send flood warnings via cellphone notifications to residents downstream.

It’s important to recognize, though, that tech isn’t a panacea. Spotty (or no) access to electricity or Internet, for instance, blunts the effectiveness of some solutions. Plus, vulnerability to disasters isn’t just a technical or physical problem. Experts often say, “There’s no such thing as a natural disaster.” Instead, they argue, a combination of political, economic, and social factors define what makes a particular natural event more or less damaging.

For instance, in 2010, earthquakes in New Zealand and Haiti were of similar magnitude (7.1 and 7.0, respectively) and both occurred near cities. Yet the former resulted in no deaths, while the latter killed hundreds of thousands. Enforced building standards, low poverty levels, inclusive risk reduction, and other elements can prevent a natural hazard from becoming a catastrophic disaster.

If disasters aren’t entirely natural, then they aren’t entirely inevitable; in fact, risk mitigation is cheaper than disaster response. Yet emergency response accounts for the bulk of international spending on disasters. Meanwhile, for people like Inkaew, who always have the next disaster in the back of their minds, risk reduction is continual.

Disability-inclusive teams like Trung’s and age-inclusive associations like Inkaew’s may not sound very glamorous, but they’re essential to ensure that vulnerable individuals and communities aren’t neglected. Archer, who focuses on community-led development, says that when it comes to reducing disaster risks, “A lot of the things that might be done, especially very large infrastructural projects, will have some negative impacts. And the nature of these things means that it’s often the more marginalized and voiceless people who end up suffering even more as a result. So having a community process is one way of avoiding people being marginalized.”

Communities “are basically taking matters into their own hands and trying to come up with solutions, rather than waiting for the government.” People like Inkaew, Mai, and Trung, are committing to one another, preparing themselves for the risks they’ve already begun to confront daily. Facing the risks of climate change—a problem of global scale—they’re finding that some important solutions are local.

Illustration by Bruno Moraes